Dodge’s Dead Import Trucks (Part I)
Recently on Abandoned History, we heard about the Colt, a captive Dodge/Plymouth/Eagle/AMC/Renault import sold through badge swapping on select Mitsubishi compact cars. During the tenure of this series, one of our readers had a great idea: a separate discussion of the discontinued history of captive imported trucks and SUVs in the Dodge portfolio. The time has come!
As we discussed earlier, the collaboration between Chrysler and Mitsubishi began in 1971 when Chrysler bought a stake in the Japanese conglomerate. Mitsubishi would use Chrysler as an outlet for some of its models in North America, a place where there was no distribution. For its investment, Chrysler had access to small economy vehicles from Japan and did not have to spend money on their development. It was win-win.
The first Colts arrived in North America in 1971, but a truck import was not to follow for some time. The concept of a more efficient compact truck was not one that the North American public was willing to accept unconvinced, and it took quite a while. A short compact dissertation on truck is in order.
Datsun was the first to offer its compact truck in the United States and began importing in 1959 with the Datsun 1000. Datsun owned the compact truck market for a few years and had the only offering until Toyota joined in 1964 Stout. Mazda was the third to market a B1600 in 1972.
By this time, domestic manufacturers noticed that Japanese imports were selling well enough to warrant some competition, and in mid-1972 Chevy began selling the Isuzu P’up, badged LUV. That same year, Ford rebadged a Mazda B and offered the Courier. Both of these domestic offerings hit just before the 1973 oil crisis, which saw sales of smaller (particularly Japanese) vehicles soar given their efficiency.
Chrysler was left empty-handed. In the mid-1970s, Dodge’s truck lineup consisted of the full-size D-series, the Ramcharger SUV (also offered as the Plymouth Trailduster for a short time), and the Tradesman series of vans.
Part of the lack of compact truck entry was due to their choice of Japanese partner: Mitsubishi didn’t make a compact truck at all. The company’s largest utility vehicle was the Delica, offered since 1969. But Delica did not translate to a pickup version; the only truck the company sold was a Kei-class truck. It was called Minicab and was based on the Minica sedan. Mitsubishi continued to develop and expand its product line throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, becoming the global giant it is today.
The first compact truck ever made by Mitsubishi was the Forte. It entered production in 1978 for the Japanese market and went on sale for the 1979 model year. As was standard operating procedure for Mitsubishi, the Forte went by many different names depending on the market. It was known as the L200 in many places, and that name, in particular, proved enduring.
Other market name variations included Mighty Max and various adjectives added to the L200 such as Express and Power X. Most examples were built in Japan at Mitsubishi’s Nagoya plant, but there was additional production in Thailand and in the Phillippines. Mitsubishi trucks have quickly proven to be reliable and affordable work vehicles in many parts of the world.
All examples had two doors, as it was not yet the age of the crew cab truck. Various engines were used around the world, but all had four cylinders. They ranged from a base 1.6 liter to two different 2.0 liter grinders. The largest gasoline engine was the 2.6, a 4G54 that made its way into many Mitsubishi and Chrysler products in the late 80s. There were also two diesels, 2.3 and 2.5 liters. The smaller one had a turbo. A sign of the times, all transmissions were manual and had four or five speeds.
Three different wheelbases were offered, which started at 109.4 inches for short wheelbase and two-wheel drive. With four-wheel drive, that wheelbase jumped to 110 inches. The longest wheelbase was only two-wheel drive and measured 119.5 inches. Overall length was approximately 184.6 inches, with 65 inches in width and between 61 and 65 inches in overall height depending on the number of driven wheels. Four-wheel drive was not initially available, but was added to Mitsubishi-branded models internationally in 1981.
For size comparison, a full-size D-Series truck used various wheelbases of 115, 131, 133, 135, 149, and even 165 inches, with an overall length between 188 and 240 inches. Overall width was 79.8″, two feet wider than the Mitsubishi. There were many specs and bed lengths on the full-size Dodge back in the day, and length details are hard to find. But the size difference was significant.
Chrysler was quick to ship trucks to North America, and with an easy badge swap, the new Dodge D-50 was ready for 1979. The new truck also graced Plymouth dealerships as the Arrow , not to be confused with the Fire Arrow hatchback (Mitsubishi Lancer). Keeping in mind that there were no Mitsubishi dealerships in North America at the time, the only way to get one of the trucks was at your friendly Dodge dealership.
Initial styling included single headlights, a key to determining the age of a first generation D-50. In other parts of the world, single or dual headlights were available at the buyer’s discretion, alongside dual circular headlights. In Australia, the D-50 was sold as Chrysler and featured circular headlights instead.
All D-50s and Arrows were two-wheel drive through the 1981 model year. Initial versions included the base D-50 with a 2.0-liter engine and four-speed manual transmission and the D-50 Sport with a 2.6-liter engine and a five-speed manual transmission. Both engines included Mitsubishi’s new Silent Shaft balancing technology. The Sport was the one to have, as it included niceties like a full set of gauges, tape strips, white letter tires and even an FM band for the radio.
Exterior additions were few when introduced, and the most significant were a roll bar, grille guard and a sunroof called “Sky Lite”. Both the D-50 and the Arrow could be equipped with air conditioning, additional grip strips, black mirrors, power steering, rear bumper and additional sports cladding. Interestingly, unlike the Mitsubishi versions available in the rest of the world, an automatic transmission was available on the D-50. It would have been the same three-speed TorqueFlite that was offered in the Colt.
Much like other national brands and their captive import compact trucks, Dodge found success with the D-50 and Arrow. Changes for the D-50 occurred gradually, the first of which was a name change after 1980 – to the Ram 50. The Plymouth Arrow name was not changed, although it was most certainly a slower seller than its Ram cousin; North American customers weren’t used to looking to Plymouth for trucks.
Indeed, sales of the Arrow were such that it never survived the first-generation refresh: Arrow was canceled after the 1982 model year, leaving the Ram 50 to absorb remaining customers. That same year, the four-wheel-drive system available since 1981 on the L200 arrived in North America. The drive system warranted a special badge, such as Power Ram 50. The Power Ram name was what Dodge historically used to refer to four-wheel drive.
In 1983, the Ram 50 was refreshed, more easily visible via the set of four rectangular headlights. When Mitsubishi established its dealership network in the United States that year, it began selling its truck with its standard badging. For the US market only, the truck was called Mighty Max. One wonders how many would have purchased the truck as a Dodge, but chose their Mitsubishi dealer once the option was available. They should like the single headlight look, as the Mitsubishis kept the old look while the Dodge was able to upgrade to quad lights.
Also for 1983, Ram 50 buyers saw a new engine option: a 2.3-liter turbocharged 4D55 diesel engine. That same year, the same turbodiesel was also an option on the new Ford Ranger. It was not used in any other North American vehicles. Initial turbodiesel power was 80 horsepower, but increased in 1984 with a new wastegate to 86 horsepower. The engine arrived near the end of the first-generation Ram 50’s run and was only available until 1985.
It was the last year for the first generation model, as a new one arrived in 1986. The Ram 50 established itself as a valid compact truck choice for its first generation run, but the ’70s trucks seemed pretty dated in the middle of the next decade. In Part II, we’ll cover the Ram 50, Volume Two.
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